We’re a never-kill-wolf province, public says

B.C. government faced with tough decision on caribou recovery issue

By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, March 18, 2010

The public has rejected the idea of an aerial wolf kill in B.C. to benefit threatened mountain caribou, even before the first gun has been loaded.But whether the B.C. government listens to the public, or to the scientists who say the kill is vital for caribou recovery, remains to be seen.  Chris Ritchie, manager of species at risk recovery for the ministry of environment, said Wednesday the response has been overwhelmingly negative since the proposed aerial wolf kill became widely known in February.

“I’m trying to think about anything that was supportive and I can’t think of anything,” Ritchie said in an interview.

The province’s mountain caribou science team has recommended: immediate aerial removal of wolves that threaten herds with fewer than 50 animals; immediate augmentation of the South Purcell herd and all herds with fewer than 20 animals; and immediate but gradual reduction of moose densities throughout the mountain caribou range through adjustments to hunting regulations that allow for increases in cow moose harvest and hunting seasons.

The provincial goal is to increase the mountain caribou population — now estimated at 1,800 to 1,900 animals — to the pre-1995 level of 2,500 animals within 20 years.

Ritchie said the science team’s advice is “not to be taken lightly” but noted that their recommendations do not necessarily consider the political challenges in the face of adverse public opinion.

“It makes it a challenge. The practical, technical side, I think, is sound.

“If we want to maintain some of these specific herds that are in peril, we need a tough decision.”

He said no specific recommendation has yet been made to government.

As of last fall, trapping and hunting had killed about 35 wolves over the past three years in mountain caribou recovery areas, not nearly enough to sufficiently boost threatened herds, he said.

Christie said wildlife officials “basically need to remove an entire pack,” rather than pick off one or two by hunting or trapping. “That leaves us with not many options.”

The caribou recovery program has a budget of $630,000 in the fiscal year ending March 31, covering everything from caribou surveys to monitoring snowmobile activity to predator-control projects.

Sterilization pilot projects targeting the breeding alpha male and females are also underway in at least four packs to determine the effectiveness in controlling wolf populations, he said.

The strategy behind liberalized hunting of moose? Fewer moose (the primary prey of wolves) means fewer wolves and therefore a greater chance for caribou (a secondary prey source) to increase.

So far, hunters haven’t responded as the ministry had hoped in two pilot areas, one near Revelstoke and one in the Parsnip drainage east of Prince George. “The hunters have to recognize an opportunity,” Christie said. “There’s human nature: ‘I’ve always hunted here. Why should I go there?’ It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Caribou population surveys are underway and will give officials a better idea of the success of recovery initiatives.

Robert Serrouya, a member of the B.C. mountain caribou science team and a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, said tough decisions across the board are needed to save the mountain caribou, including management of predators and prey, mechanized recreation and forest harvesting.

“It does sadden us that some wolves and cougars will have to be killed to save these endangered caribou. Aerial gunning is the most humane way of removing wolves, compared to all other alternatives, and it also allows people to selectively remove animals that pose the greatest risk.”

If the caribou die off, then the urgency to protect and enhance the old-growth forests on which they depend will lessen, he fears.

Caribou are already almost extirpated from Glacier and Mount Revelstoke national parks, in large part due to predation, he said.

Not all scientists agree with the caribou science team.

Chris Darimont, a wolf researcher with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said overharvesting of mountain caribou habitat is the real cause of the species’ plight.

“Logging has deprived mountain caribou of critical food and made them more vulnerable to predation [by providing roads, and better moose habitat, which attracts wolves to an area]. Likewise, snowmobiling — by scaring caribou from prime habitat and granting easy travel routes to wolves — is also in part to blame.”

He said once wolves are shot out of one area, others from neighbouring areas will simply move in. “Helicopters are not cheap. Voters get outraged. And losing wolves is devastating to ecosystems.”

The province has committed to protect 2.2 million hectares of mountain caribou habitat from logging and road building.

With financial backing from big-game trophy-hunting organizations such as the U.S.-based Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, biologists with shotguns flew over the northern Muskwa-Kechika area in the 1980s, shooting more than 700 wolves in four years.

lpynn@vancouversun.com

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